How to report a news story, from a not-so-long-ago beginner
Apr 22 2013
Last fall, I began working on my first story as a reporter, but it was not until it was actually published in February (months later) that I gained a true understanding of just what goes into reporting and writing a news story.
After seven interviews, a lot of notes and few hours spent on a first draft, I sat down with my editor to take a look at my story. I had never written a true news story, and the first thing she asked was, “Do you know what a lead is?” Obviously I did not (as I had begun the story with an intro paragraph of sorts), but I learned quickly, and the learning only continued from there.
If you are new to reporting, newswriting, journalism and or all of the above, I would like to share my own learning experience with you with four simple tips in hopes that you will gain some practical advice or insight from a not-so-long-ago beginner herself.
1. Your idea will change.
The change could be a slight reworking of your idea or a complete 180 from your original plan, as it was in my case. I found that the more people I talked to, the more my story re-developed itself. At first this was a little confusing for me, because I am an organized and very planning-oriented person. In the end, however, I learned that as you research and interview and develop, it is important to let the information and the people you encounter lead you in their own direction because chances are your story will be much different, but also much better, because of it.
2. You make think you have thoroughly interviewed someone, but you should probably call again and ask some more questions.
Here’s the thing about interviewing—especially your first time ever. It’s hard. When I began calling sources, I had a list of questions prepared, but as soon as the conversation began my entire plan (once again) fell apart. It took me one phone call to realize that conversing with a source about a topic in a casual way, rather than hurling questions at them, would provide me with the interesting information that great stories demand. The problem was, I did not yet know how to think like a journalist and so I neglected to ask important questions about the interesting things I was being told. This led to more than a few follow-up phone calls and emails asking for specific details as to who, what, when, how etc. that I probably should have asked from the beginning.
The lesson learned? Ask a lot of questions, beyond what you have prepared. And if the source says they did a cool, awesome or weird thing, absolutely gather as much detail as they are willing to give. My advice is that when your source says something interesting at all, always ask for an explanation, an example and where you can find more information or talk to someone else about whatever that interesting thing is. It will save you time and make for a more complete story.
3. Thorough reporting = safe reporting. AKA … attribute EVERYTHING.
This is obviously important to know if you are a reporter, because libel and defamation are very real risks in the world of journalism. I am sure you won’t be surprised to know I didn’t really know about these things either, but luckily my editors love attributions so I learned this lesson quickly. There was one statistic in particular that really gave me a hard time. The data was from an article from a reputable news site, but it was a quote taken from a speaker at a conference a few years ago. Perhaps I could have just omitted the use of this statistic from my story, but I felt it was a key bit of information to include, and so the hunt began.
I searched lots of statistics sites and databases and even contacted several people at the same company as the subject who was quoted. In the end, I finally figured out the source of the quote, only to find it was outdated. The next step involved digging through the Bureau of Labor Statistics website in search of the information I needed, which I eventually found. At the end of the day, yes, I could have pulled the stat or attributed it to the original speaker, but I learned it is most important to be both accurate and current and to always make sure it is clear who is saying what and where information came from. Thorough reporting = safe reporting.
4. You can’t please everyone.
At the end of the day, it is important to remember that your job is to write an impartial, accurate story. There will be sources that think that your interviewing them means they, or whatever they are associated with, is the star of your story. It may not be, and that’s okay. Since blogging for Reese last year, but especially in writing this story, I have learned that people-pleasing is not part of reporting. If someone wants to review your story or decides he or she is unhappy with what you wrote, there is no issue as long as you have written the truth. You will have editors to report to, sources asking to see what you wrote, and readers asking questions or commenting on the content you produce, and at the end of the day, the only way to stay sane is to exercise integrity and do your job the right way.
Reporting is rewarding, but difficult to do. What makes it worth it is the sense of accomplishment that accompanies your published work—and the sense of pride that comes from knowing you did it right.